Pass notes: Arabic Cultural Etiquette

Knowing the proper Arabic cultural etiquette is crucial to communicating successfully within the Arab world, as these countries value order, rules and tradition.

Etiquette of greeting

The traditional Islamic greeting exchanged in Arab countries is “Assalamo Alaikum”, which translates as “May peace be upon you’’.  Always greet elders first. Shake hands with the right hand at the beginning and end of any meeting. Do not shake hands with an Arabic woman unless she offers her hand first. Close friends or colleagues hug and kiss each other on both cheeks.

Etiquette of hospitality and visits

Men should not wear shorts and women should not wear short sleeves or sleeveless dresses. Take off your shoes at the entrance and leave them there before going in. Sometimes oversize slippers are provided for you to put on. It is insulting to ask about an Arabic man’s wife or other female family member.

Etiquette of dining

As the food is served, guests say, “Sahtain” (the equivalent of “bon appétit”), or “Bismillah” (in the name of God). When the meal is over, guests should say politely, “Daimah” (may there always be plenty at your table), or “Al Hamdu Li Lah” (Praise to God), and move back slightly from the table. If you have used your hand, you should go and wash.

One very important thing to remember is use your right hand when picking up and eating food: never your left hand. Keep your left hand at your side and do not pass food with your left hand.

In restaurants, Arabs will almost always insist on paying. When paying together as a group, it is best if one person pays the bill and is reimbursed later, because publicly calculating a bill is considered embarrassing to Arabs. Most importantly, be aware that Arabs are restricted by Islamic conventions from eating pork, and alcohol is forbidden.

Etiquette of giving gifts

If you are invited to an Arab home, bring a gift of baked goods, or chocolates and flowers are acceptable. If you know that children will be present, bringing them a small gift will be appreciated. Do not give anything that has a picture of people or dogs on it, as Islam prohibits images of the human body and dogs are considered unclean. Also, avoid alcohol and products made of pigskin, because pigs are considered offensive to Muslims. Most importantly, do not give a gift to the wife of an Arab colleague.

Knowing the proper Arabic cultural etiquette is crucial to communicating successfully within the Arab world, as these countries value order, rules and tradition.


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